I Teach Starfish

According to one of my 6th graders, when her older brother noticed that she's in middle school now, he told her, "Tell Ms. Napper hi! I love that teacher, she's really nice."

That's very sweet, of course. But this is why it's surprising... This older brother, who is a young adult by now, was never actually in my class. He wasn't my student; I barely even knew him.

He was one of those notorious students, though, that just wasn't into playing the school game. He was much more interested in the press-all-my-teachers'-buttons game. I don't know his background story, but I'm sure he had one. He also had some wonderful, patient, skilled, compassionate teachers, who I know were constantly bending over backwards, trying to meet this kid where he was at, and help him get on a better path. But he wasn't too interested. I don't know what happened in his life post-middle school, but at least at the time, it didn't seem like any effort made much of an impact.

I do remember making a conscious decision to be his "hello in the hallway" buddy. He was friends with several of my students, and I'd see him in the halls all the time. Since he wasn't in my class, I had no personal issues with him, and he had no problem with me. (It's easy to get along with the teacher that doesn't make you do stuff!) So I made a point of regularly calling him by name, giving a warm hello, maybe making some small talk.

And that was really it. This didn't develop into a meaningful bond. I don't remember ever having a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds. I don't remember getting more than an indifferent response from him. I didn't change his life, and I wasn't trying to. I was just a friendly face in the background of his life, no more and no less.

So it really surprised me that years later, he remembers me at all, let alone remembers me warmly.

I don't share this story to toot my own horn. I didn't do anything great for this kid; I hardly did anything at all. I share it because--confession--I've rolled my eyes so many times when people say, "Sometimes all it takes is a smile or a hello to make someone's day." I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't be so judgy, but it always sounds to me like this lazy way to excuse ourselves from doing the hard work of really loving or showing compassion. I appreciate smiles and hellos, but I can't think of a single time when one "made my day."

But maybe I'm wrong.

I've also been struggling a lot with the enormity of... of the everything. Of all the ugliness in the world, and how it weighs down on the people I love. I  constantly feel like the guy in the starfish story, telling myself that even though the beach is enormous, I can make "a difference for this one." Except that as fast as I'm throwing the starfish back in the sea, they're getting hit by other forces and predators, and I'm not sure that I actually can make a significant difference for any of them. I keep wearing myself out trying, because I can't just quit, but does any of it even matter??


And maybe it does.

Smiling and saying hello won't save a starfish's life. It probably won't have any measurable impact at all. But it might just matter anyway.

Apparently some smiles and hellos mattered at least a little to this kid. At least enough that he remembers me, a nobody a in his life, years later. That feels good. There were others doing the real work with this kid, and I'm sure they had a much bigger impact. But maybe we all need those small impact players in our lives too.

And if something as low-effort as being a friendly hallway buddy makes more of an impact than I could see, then maybe some good also comes from when I pour my energy and heart into something/someone.

Writing this so maybe I'll remember on the days when I'm feeling discouraged....